03/26/2012 7:26AM

Bergman: For Gural and Faraldo, two different approaches to harness industry

Joe Faraldo

The War of the Words, as I like to call it, has managed to filter its way into today’s harness racing spotlight. The words, of course, are those of Jeff Gural, head honcho at the New Meadowlands as well as two New York tracks, Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs. His rival in this seemingly never-ending grudge match is SOA of NY president Joe Faraldo.

Gural, has made his fortunes in the real estate trade and has dabbled in harness racing as an owner and breeder for a quarter of a century. Faraldo, a lawyer by trade whose real calling is that of a politician, has been the driving force heading horseman’s organizations in the New York City area for what seems an eternity.

Each man has been extremely successful at what they do best. Gural’s success in real estate and Faraldo’s at fighting for the preservation of horse racing and horsemen.

What separates the two is ideology. Faraldo has seemed to operate in the here and now. Much like our political leaders who continue to kick the future of our country (and its mounting debt) down the road, Faraldo plays coy with the concept of planning or marketing for the sports future. His most recent attack is based on what he perceives as a “fixed” poll orchestrated by the USTA at the behest of Gural.

The results of the poll are irrelevant. The poll was likely irrelevant as well.

Unlike the rest of the world, which is polled on a daily basis and has politicians that react to the polls, harness racing plays by a different set of rules. Since the advent of slot machines, at Yonkers Raceway, marketing has been the last thing on anyone’s mind, unless of course you’re speaking of marketing slot machines.

When purses more than tripled at Yonkers, did Faraldo really need to do anything else to increase his popularity with the horsemen? Of course some six years later, as the harness part of the facility has been mired in a slump, you might think that attitudes would change. To the contrary, Faraldo’s audience is now made up of mostly transients who have no personal stake in whether Yonkers promotes or doesn’t. They are there for one purpose and that is to claim the lion’s share of the $50 million given out each year.

To many observers Jeff Gural rode in with his white hat on to rescue the Meadowlands from extinction last year. Gural’s ability to work through the political system in New Jersey and somehow come away with a deal is a miracle in itself. But Gural’s expertise in real estate should not be confused with the themes he espouses when it concerns harness racing. You can’t argue about his heart being in the right place, but his ideas for marketing and promotion and what the sport needs to survive have to be questioned. Last year he made an aggressive push for changing the retirement age for Standardbreds to go to the breeding shed. One could argue with the current state of the breeding business this was akin to cutting spending during a recession - most economists believe it’s a bad idea. Breeders throughout North America also balked (though many did it quietly not to thwart the Meadowlands deal) and the plan was pushed back a year.

Gural wants the horsemen to fund drug testing and marketing with 5 percent of purses from “slot-rich” racetracks (numbers that were radically reduced earlier this week at the USTA board of directors meetings). His poll concluded that most of the people are in favor of that. Well, much like the popular claim that those making over $250,000 a year should be taxed more heavily, a majority of the public agrees with the concept but Washington still can’t find a way to adopt legislation.

The key factor in what separates Gural and Faraldo is perhaps the fact that Faraldo is carving out a current stance and Gural is looking into the future. Real estate people are always looking ahead and speculating future value of their investments. Gural is attempting to do the same for harness racing. However, in as much as real estate can be a gamble, marketing the sport of harness racing with any level of success seems near impossible at this stage. Despite the walls appearing to collapse in Pennsylvania and Ontario, Faraldo obviously thinks his position is strong on maintaining the status quo and that he can control the powers in Albany to maintain the current contribution level from slot machines. Yet recent legislation supporting seven competing casinos in New York could drain racing purses.

Faraldo is not wrong in suggesting that horsemen shouldn’t have to pay for things like promotion or drug testing. The problem is that when all is said and done the sport is not guaranteed to survive if nothing changes, while those racetracks that house slot machines most definitely will.

Under his watch Faraldo probably got the most money for horsemen possible in his dealings with Yonkers management. Yet if he considers the $1 million spent to keep the Yonkers signal on the NYRA channel after the collapse of NYC OTB something worth bragging about, perhaps he should give the exact figures Yonkers handle went down in 2011. For the record it fell from a nightly average of $952,000 in 2010 to $752,862 last year.

Gural too tends to be guilty of advance promotion of handle figures when they’re positive and fails to mention anything negative when it doesn’t suit a purpose. A quick look at last year’s disappointing ontrack live track handle at Tioga Downs, which dropped to $1,565,983 from $1,801,096 in 2010, or the money wagered on simulcast signals into Tioga, which reduced more dramatically from $4,432,141 in 2010 to $3,602,467 in 2011, completes the story.

Well, not exactly. Handle on slot machines in the fiscal year set to end this week shows Tioga’s take on overall handle will show a gain of $5 million! This could lead to the impression that Tioga’s marketing is succeeding rather well in siphoning racing handle to its slot machines.

The irony of this incredible War of Words is that Faraldo appears so willing to accept the lack of a Yonkers Raceway marketing plan for harness racing, unless you consider a “talking horse” in slot advertisements as meaningful, yet somehow is critical of someone spending time and money at three tracks on marketing actual horse races.

Obviously both Gural and Faraldo are flawed figures. Perhaps neither is fit to lead this sport out of its current malaise in spite of their obvious passion.

The issue is the future of the sport of harness racing, not casinos. The issue is the future and not the present. The issue is about unity in spite of enormous egos. The issue is about looking at the whole picture both positive and negative so there’s less posturing and more understanding.

We mustn’t keep kicking our future down the road.

We don’t hold the market position that Kodak and the Encyclopedia Britannica once did. Look where they are today.